The struggles of college students to afford textbooks are well known. Prices for textbooks have risen more than 1,000 percent since 1977, three times faster than tuition costs, and a 2014 study found that 65 percent of students decided not to buy a required textbook because it was too expensive.
Higher education institutions are responding to the problem by looking to open educational resources (OER), which are often free and interactive digital textbooks that replace printed materials. At the end of July, for instance, the U.S. Department of Education announced a grants program to award $5 million to up to three applicants for OER pilot programs. And just last week, the Rice University-based OER publisher OpenStax announced that nearly half of colleges and universities in the U.S. are using its free textbooks this year.
The cost savings of moving to OER are impossible to ignore.
Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, announced last week that its partnership with Top Hat, a Toronto provider of a cloud-based teaching platform for higher education, is on track to save its students over $1 million in textbook fees this year, more than double the school’s initial projection.
“We’re in year three of a very focused textbook cost reduction strategy,” Brad Cohen, senior vice provost for instructional innovation at Ohio University, told EdScoop. “This is our big push, started this year and into the coming year … Our ambition isn’t to eliminate textbooks altogether but to drive adoption” of OER.
The public university has about 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students, spread out over six campuses, two satellite centers and online. To date, Top Hat has worked with professors to develop OER for between 60 and 70 courses.
“We are very focused on the undergrad space in this initiative,” Cohen said. “I think there are natural [subjects] where open is easier to develop and the attraction among faculty for use is strong … We haven’t been restricting this in any way, but we have focused a lot of energy and attention on our lower-level courses, freshman and sophomore.”
Cohen said the university started recruiting faculty last spring to participate in developing OER for their courses.
“What we’ve done is think about the professor as our primary audience or customer,” said Nick Stein, chief marketing officer at Top Hat. “Much like the textbook publishers, we’re developing a direct relationship with professors and instructors, providing them with materials and the platform.”
Megan Durnford, account director and OER specialist for Top Hat, led the recruitment drive for faculty.
“The first step was that we had to bring awareness,” Durnford said. The company held webinars on the benefits of OER and how Top Hat would help them transition from traditional textbooks. “Once the faculty had an appetite for it and showed interest, [we] had one-on-one meetings, to go over their objectives, where to look for sources, [how to use] the marketplace, licenses … They started to get excited that they could get customized resources. They started talking to one another, realized the cost savings they were making, and got excited.”
Stein explained that traditional textbook publishers provide far more than just the books to students — they produce everything from course assessments to test materials to PowerPoint presentations for faculty to use for their classes. So Top Hat does the same thing, providing professors the same kind of support materials, but with the added benefit of analytics on how well students are digesting the materials.
“If you think about the evaluation criteria professors go through when assessing textbooks and primary materials, they look just at the content itself,” he said. “We’ve expanded that to how is that content being delivered, what kind of [ongoing] feedback is the professor getting, rather than once or twice a semester during exams … We allow modification in real time” to improve students’ success.
Top Hat provides a “digital marketplace” for its OER, where faculty can easily search for applicable textbooks by discipline and type of content. The company also partners with some larger players, such as OpenStax, to make its content available on Top Hat’s platform, as well.
There is a limited amount of materials available for some disciplines, Stein noted, so Top Hat has an e-reader and authoring tool.
“You can adopt a piece of content from our marketplace as-is, you can mix and match [materials] as you want, or maybe you have your own OER content,” he said. “You can author it yourself right on the platform and make it available to other academics. … You can actually get suggestions from other academics on how to make it better.”
Cohen said Ohio University also dedicated some funds for an incentive program. “Faculty who adopt get a modest stipend – a little bit more if they modify content” and share back to the marketplace, he said.
“This initiative, in part, is about helping faculty develop a more contemporary understanding of content,” Cohen said. “Not only are we driving them to adopt open content, but to engage in [new] practices … Our expectation is that not only will students save money, but they will have a more engaged experience.”